MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – There is little that can hunt the good stuff quite like a little girl in a dress that sparkles and twirls.
If this notion is doubted, 5-year-old Jaina Synder offered overwhelming proof at Madigan Army Medical Center’s annual Christmas tree and menorah lighting ceremony on Dec. 4.
Every year, Madigan’s Pediatrics Clinic chooses one of its special patients to help the commander throw the switch and light up the holiday season. Jaina was this year’s clear choice.
“She is a strong, amazing little girl who makes us smile when she comes to clinic,” said one of her doctors, Col. Melissa Forouhar, Madigan’s chief of Pediatrics. “She makes our job easy!”
While the ceremony was smaller and quieter than usual, COVID concerns could not dull Jaina’s spirits as she stepped up at Acting Commander Col. Scott Roofe’s request that she join him in front of the large, snowpeople-laden tree and its accompanying menorah.
Some kids serving as the season starter are reserved and require extra encouragement from the commander or mom and dad. Not Jaina.
She took the remote for the lights in hand and pressed the button all on her own.
Her answer to Roofe’s question of what she hopes Santa will bring her this year, “Whatever he wants,” came without artifice. Jaina was open and outgoing, and the undisputed star of the show.
Forouhar, Col. David Harper, the chief of the Pediatrics Hematology/Oncology specialty clinic, and registered nurses Andrea Howe and Kirstin VanHoute, all treat some of Madigan’s most delicate patients in the “Hem/Onc” clinic.
When it was nearly time for the ceremony to start, Jaina’s care team all swarmed to her like moths to a flame, excited to share their fun Christmas sweaters with her.
“She is adorable, charismatic and just a joy to be around,” said Howe of her young patient.
Howe, who calls Jaina “Sis,” asked her what she thought of “Mister Dave’s” elf sweater replete with green, pointy ears. Jaina approved of Harper’s look.
Jaina was diagnosed with leukemia in spring of 2019 when her family was in New Mexico. Her dad, Matt, who is an Air Force tech sergeant with the 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, got a compassionate reassignment to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to take advantage of its robust Exceptional Family Member Program.
Coming to JBLM is a return to the West Coast for Jaina’s parents as Matt grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., and mom, Rindi, is from Beaverton, Ore. But, Jaina will tell you she was born in England, at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in Suffolk, England, to be precise.
Spc. Christopher Blanshard, a chaplain assistant in Madigan’s Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care, informed the ceremony’s attendees that it was England that brought the decorated fir tree into wide observance as a symbol of Christmas. A drawing depicting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert following his ancestral German tradition of celebrating the holiday with their family around their tree was widely circulated in England and soon in the U.S. as well.
Following ancient pagan traditions, both bringing greenery into the home to enliven the dark winter months and using candles and special logs on the fire to brighten the darkness are incorporated into numerous winter holiday observances.
“Today, Christmas trees come in all different shapes and sizes, from traditional to artificial. Regardless of the kind of tree you might display in your home, may you remember that it is more than just a tree; it is a symbol of new life and hope that exists, during the dark wintery times of our lives,” said Blanshard.
Chaplain resident Capt. Yisahar Izak shared with the small crowd the story behind the Jewish festival of lights that is Hanukkah.
After defeating a tyrannical and oppressive ruler in the 2nd century, B.C., rabbis came to restore their defiled temple in Jerusalem. Though they found only one day’s worth of oil to light the temple, it miraculously lasted for the eight days it took to replenish supplies.
“Sages explained to us that God has chosen fire and lights to be the symbol, showing that darkness does not have substance,” said Izak. “Even a small match in a dark room is enough to light the room up; the substance of darkness is of nothing in the presence of life.”
He continued to tell the audience that the Jewish mystics and sages asked, “What if all of us are the temple? What if all of us have the potential of being a flickering light?”
Roofe thanked those who brought light to the hospital through their service, especially George Wagner for playing piano accompaniment throughout the ceremony, Edwin Reyes in Madigan’s Facilities Division who set up the large tree on the bridge of the Medical Mall, and Dorie Carr and her family who have donated their time and ornaments to decorate the tree and bridge each year.
Carr, a former long-time Madigan employee, and her family chose snowpeople as their theme this, their 26th year decorating Madigan. She is known to have two stipulations for these efforts. She can choose what she wishes and it must be a secret until the decoration is complete. That puts her and her family working away at the beautiful creation through the night.
With superheroes, ice kingdoms and toy soldiers as central figures in previous years, the Madigan community enjoys seeing what the Carrs come up with each year. People could be heard commenting on the splendor of the tree this year.
“What a wonderful tradition, and a great gift to us all,” said Roofe.
Roofe, in his words to the staff and patients collected around the Medical Mall, advocated for connection, especially this time of year, especially this particular year.
“Let us today commit that we will connect with each other in the coming weeks and months, that we won't let the mask we wear keep us from smiling as you pass each other in the hall. You know you can still see that smile in your eyes. Don't let the physical distancing keep us from offering words of encouragement and gratitude. Cherish the memories we make together, care for each other, support one another, find comfort in the time we're able to spend together as we remember, we are all in this together,” he said.
Most people are finding connection difficult this year, but military kids like Jaina have separation as a normal part of life. She has always connected with her family via virtual means.
Jaina stays in touch with her “amah,” Rindi’s mother who lives in Oregon, with video calls. A video post on Madigan’s Facebook page enabled family sharing of Jaina’s lighting performance.
“She has literally grown up with seeing family on FaceTime. But, it has helped her stay connected to everybody,” said Rindi. “It's so beautiful to see the relationships that have developed and maintained, even though we can't be physically together.”
This has been a supremely challenging year; Harper explained how it has impacted Jaina specifically.
“Jaina’s journey has been double complicated. She moved away from all her friends just a few months before the COVID outbreak. She has been forced to wait to make friends in person at her new home. She was so excited to start kindergarten this year, only to have in person kindergarten canceled just days before her first day of school. In spite of all of this, she is happy and hopeful and looks forward to a better future,” he said.
The resilience and optimism of young Jaina should guide us all. She is looking forward to whatever presents come her way. She is looking forward to getting back to being able to ride her bike, do her artwork and spin so furiously that she calls it, “doing tornadoes.”
With just two maintenance procedures left, Jaina is ready for the 100 years her mom says she’ll be free of having them.
“I think 900 years,” Jaina told her mom.
The future is bright.
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